Any intelligence service worth its salt appreciates the opportunity to deploy an agent among a foreign people with which he’s intimately familiar, whose language he speaks, whose culture he understands, and whose appearance he approximates.
In the case of the nascent Jewish state, circa 1945-50, dozens of such would-be agents—Jewish by birth and religion, Arab by almost everything else—began appearing in Mandatory Palestine from surrounding Arab countries. The emerging intelligence apparatus wasted no time deploying these assets throughout Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere at a pivotal time in the history of what would become the state of Israel.
But as these “Mizrachi” spies—the name, literally meaning “eastern,” is a catch-all for Jews originating from Middle Eastern or North African countries—gathered valuable intelligence and carried out courageous operations, they confronted complex problems of identity and belonging that transcended the challenges typically greet covert operatives.
The Arab Section
In Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel, journalist Matti Friedman eloquently uncovers the stories of these agents populating the “Arab Section” of the embryonic Jewish armed forces who in certain ways found themselves on more familiar ground abroad than at home, wherever exactly that was.
Friedman is careful to note that these spies’ “mission didn’t culminate in a dramatic explosion that averted disaster, or in the solution of a devious puzzle.” Rather, he contends, “their importance to history lies instead in what they turned out to be—the embryo of one of the world’s most formidable intelligence services.”
Specifically, the book traces the sinuous, perilous paths of, among others, the unflappable Gamliel Cohen (a.k.a. Yussef), a Damascene; the hotheaded Yakuva Cohen (a.k.a. Jamil), of Jerusalem; the cautious Havakuk Cohen (a.k.a. Ibrahim), a Yemenite; and the nostalgic Isaac Shoshan (a.k.a. Abdul Karim), of Aleppo, the only character still living, whom Friedman managed to interview in person.
Like every good spy novel, the book begins with recruitment. Military officers in search of agents often visited the young immigrants on the kibbutzim where they would inevitably be placed (and here, Friedman partly recounts and partly debunks the legendary “bonfire culture” of these Easterners). There, the recruiters would pitch them on the virtues of a career in espionage, flattering their would-be charges by equating their individual value to an entire “battalion of infantry.”
Once enlisted, these one-man battalions were initially deployed as mista’arvim (literally, those who become like Arabs) primarily to Haifa and Jaffa, mixed Arab-Jewish cities where, ahead of Israel’s emergence as a country, borders were porous and tempers flaring. Friedman’s riveting tales of their derring-do—attempted assassinations, car bombs, and the like—intensify as the war gathers steam and as Gamliel, then Isaac, Havakuk, and Yacuba, are redeployed northward to Beirut, tagging along with Arab refugees from Palestine.
There they glean intelligence on fuel depots and the heaving Arab “liberation” armies heading south from Syria and Lebanon to strangle the Jewish entity in its infancy. They blend in among the population, operating taxis and kiosks while meeting secretly, occasionally taking side trips to Aleppo and Damascus to visit the remnants of once-strong communities whose Arab neighbors turned on them violently with the establishment of Israel.
Questions of Identity
This dizzying dance of identity manipulation would be hilarious if it weren’t so deadly. Friedman recounts a story in which Gamliel/Yussef is “nearly outed by an Arab observer who suspected he wasn’t really an Arab, then recognized by a Jew who knew he was a Jew, then nabbed by Jews who thought he was an Arab.” If it’s enough to make the reader’s head spin, one can only speculate how confusing and challenging such code-switching proved to the spies themselves.
But while in many ways Gamliel and his brethren suffered from a surfeit of identity, they were also afflicted by its absence, since Israel was just coming into being as they set off on their missions to the Arab world. Most spies, even those flung across the globe, ultimately have a place to call home, but these men
had no such thing.
They had no country—in early 1948, Israel was a wish, not a fact. If they disappeared, they’d be gone. No one might find them. No one might even look. The future was blank. And still they set out into those treacherous times, alone.
Indeed, the spies recalled musing about an alternative future where the young Jewish state was overwhelmed by the Arab armies and they literally would have nowhere to call home. But as the story unfolds, and 1948 turns to 1949, the reader viscerally senses, through Friedman’s characters, the tide of war turning gradually, then sharply, in Israel’s favor. Enthusiasm for the adventure began to wane on the streets of Beirut and Damascus as Jewish resolve in the face of the Arab exterminationist attack redoubled.
That signal moment coincided with both the Jewish exodus from Arab capitals and the attacks on the remnant unlucky enough to remain behind. Thanks to their dogged, successful efforts, the members of the Arab Section—now the renamed unit Shin Mem 18 of the Israel Defense Forces—found themselves awash in their former countrymen in their old-new homeland, where they were greeted by an alchemy of enthusiasm and suspicion from the European Jews who had first arrived en masse.
The legacy of Isaac, Gamliel, Yakuba, and Havakuk lingers in contemporary Israel, where Mizrahi musicians dominate the pop charts and those of Middle Eastern origin constitute more than half of the Israeli Jewish population. Their mindframe animates the now-ascendant “suspicion of Israel’s neighborhood rooted in long and unhappy experience, combined with an understanding that Jews have always been part of this neighborhood.”
For better or for worse, the hard-headed realism of the Arab Section’s denizens has largely supplanted the New Middle East dreams of the old Zionist theoreticians, just as the Israel of today reflects their struggle to reconcile their multiple identities.
As Friedman notes at the outset, he’s “learned over the years as a reporter that time spent with old spies is never time wasted.” The same can be said of Spies of No Country, but far more potently: time spent with Friedman’s extraordinary book repays the reader’s investment tenfold.